So, yeah, my reaction to the win over the Jets was, "Whoopee."
I don't regret it. I don't take it back. The only reason the Patriots escaped New Jersey with a victory was that they were playing the Jets and, maybe, a generous replay reversal (really, it was just because it was the Jets -- and Josh McCown eventually started playing like Josh McCown). The Patriots, especially defensively, did not play well in that game.
My reaction after watching the film, specifically the defense, of Sunday night's 23-7 victory over the Atlanta Falcons?
Let's just say it was something more joyous.
Cue the music.
Now that is what we were all waiting for.
It wasn't even about making a ton of good plays, which the Patriots did anyways. And it certainly didn't have much to do with Matt Ryan having zero confidence because his offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, has no business running a pro offense (especially following Kyle Shanahan). But that certainly didn't hurt the effort.
No, this was just about the Patriots going out and playing good, solid, fundamental defense. As simple as that sounds, as much as it has been a given around here for years, this group had shown only glimpses that they had the potential to do it. And just when we were beginning to wonder if this group could ever do it on a consistent basis, they pulled out a Picasso on national television.
It was a pure joy to watch. As much as I wanted to pull my hair out watching this unit against the Chiefs, Panthers, and portions of the Jets game, this was just a throwback. Nothing fancy. No great schemes. Just spinning the dial with coverages, being physical at the point of attack, getting off blocks, and tackling hard and well.
Let me put the defensive performance against the Falcons into perspective, especially in regards to the secondary.
For those of you not familiar, this is a quickie version of how I evaluate the film each week: Basically, it's a rudimentary plus/minus system. If a player goes above and beyond what I think their responsibility is on a play, they go into the plus column (i.e. sacks, hurries, knockdowns, getting off blocks, tough open-field tackles, passes defensed, tight coverage, etc). If they erred on a play (poor coverage, losing an edge, getting pushed out of a gap, not getting off blocks, missed tackles, etc.), it goes in the minus column.
Of course, I have no idea what their actual responsibility is because I don't know the play call. But through my experience watching this scheme for years and having watched film with coaches and players in various schemes, I have a fairly good idea who might have been at fault (psst, football is actually not that hard to comprehend if you take the time to watch and study). And when I don't know about a play or it's close, I let it go or assign it to "team."
Is it perfect? No. But, at the worst, if I grade every play the exact same way even if I'm "wrong," over time there should be some consistency and it can be used as a rough gauge. That's what I try to do.
So, I wanted to compare the Falcons game to the rest. I went back over my charts and tabulated the pluses and minuses. First, I did the defense as a whole, and you can see, as we all thought, the defense played terribly against the Chiefs, poorly against the Texans and Panthers, and solid against the Saints, Buccaneers and Jets.
And then, pow, the unit took a huge leap against Atlanta. Why? The disciplined and fundamentally sound play. The Patriots went from averaging 26.5 minus plays in the first six games, to just eight against the Falcons.
This sent me further into the numbers because I wanted to isolate the secondary. Here's that chart:
Yes, the difference was as night and day different as you thought it was. This also reinforces the notion that the secondary that was killing the defense. If you removed the secondary's minus plays, the defensive line and linebackers played winning football in every game (188 plus plays, 74 minus plays). Put it another way: The secondary (just one of three units) accounted for 55.7 percent of the minus plays on defense.
Now that the secondary has picked up its play, suddenly the Patriots' defense looks capable. Funny how that works.
One more big thing that stood out in this game, from the defensive side of the ball: they've now shown they are capable of executing a bait-and-switch to confuse a quarterback. They did it against Ryan, the reigning league MVP.
It happened on Adam Butler's sack in the second quarter. This is the type of stuff you would see the Patriots pull off against Peyton Manning to win a game. Just great preparation (again, hallelujah) and execution of team defense by everyone.
No need for me to rehash it here because I explain it in the #BSJFightClub (we don't talk about #BSJFightclub) member bonus below.
Here are the positional ratings against the Falcons:
Quarterback (4.5 out of 5)
I really underestimated how well Tom Brady played in this game. By the end, I had him for eight "plus" plays, and just one minus play: a poor throw to Brandin Cooks to end a series. Other than that, Brady was in complete command. His receivers bailed him out a few times with some inaccurate throws, but largely he ground this out against a quality opponent. Some of his errant throws were forced by the defense, and that's fine. He also had two drops and had to execute some long yardages on third down, but nothing phased him. Now, I need to leave a little room for him to have one of those games where he makes 15 ridiculous throws, so that's the only reason I didn't give him a perfect score.
Running backs (4 out of 5)
Really good, tough running by everyone, but thanks to the work of the offensive line, I wouldn't say this was a game where the backs broke a ton of tackles and got a lot more than was blocked. That being said, the backs as a whole did a nice job finishing their runs and falling forward. There were several runs where I thought it would be a stuffed run (1 yard or less outside of short yardage and goal line), but the backs ended up with 2, 3 or 4 yards. Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead were the best of the bunch, and you have to wonder if that might be the predominant two-down tandem going forward. Mike Gillislee isn't bad, but those two are just more comfortable with the scheme and rhythm of the line.
Here's one running play that didn't go well because of ... well, I'll just let you guess.
Receivers (2.5 out of 5)
Thought this was probably the most complete game Brandin Cooks has had a Patriot. We've talked in previous weeks about the growing rapport between him and Brady on a killer comeback route, and now they added a back-shoulder pass. Don't want to get too ahead of ourselves, but they're improving at a nice pace. ... Now, Rob Gronkowski certainly had some great moments in that game, including this throw-and-catch from Brady to Gronk.
But overall, Gronk wasn't sharp in this game. He probably had his worst running-blocking game, he had two penalties and it looked like he ran the wrong route when Brady wanted a speed out to Chris Hogan (who was good in this game, but also had a drop). Overall this unit was average for them. Too many miscues (three penalties, two drops and one poor Dwayne Allen block, which is in the RB section).
Offensive line (3.5 out of 5)
This was certainly better — the pressure percentage was the lowest of the season, and the stuff percentage was the lowest since the Chiefs — but Brady has to be given a lot of credit because he got rid of the ball very quickly for the second week in a row. In order of effectiveness: David Andrews, Joe Thuney, (large gap) Shaq Mason, Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. Cannon had his weakest game in a couple weeks. He had a tough time against Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn. Overall, however, the group was sensational on their inside and outside zone run blocks.
But here's one example of a play that was almost perfectly blocked for a 55-yard touchdown, but instead went for little because of one tough block that didn't go exactly right. Tough play. I also explain a little about reach blocks, which I mention from time to time.
Defensive line (4 out of 5)
Not a whole lot of flash in this group — the pressure percentage was average but the run stuffs were good — just more really effective and sound fundamental play. Patriots have something going with Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers. I didn't chart this, but it seems like the two have switched sides a bit more (Wise from left to right, and Flowers vice versa). I wonder if this is to keep Wise from getting into trouble with right, inside arm (when he's playing on the left side of the line). He tends to extend his right arm right into the face of the linemen, which has drawn a few flags and could have drawn more. Wise seems to be better playing right-handed. Flowers can play anywhere. He's that good. Everyone else was just solid.
Linebackers (3.5 out of 5)
Kyle Van Noy was the best player, but everyone had their moments, including David Harris. He also did contribute to a 21-yard run and had trouble on another running play, but he was pretty rusty. ... With Dont'a Hightower expected to miss some time with his chronic shoulder, my best guess is Harris gets more time against a Chargers team that isn't the quickest in the world. I really wouldn't mind seeing less of Elandon Roberts, whenever he is healthy.
Secondary (4 out of 5)
Overall, as we said, really improved play out of this group. Thought Jonathan Jones was the best and most consistent player. ... Malcolm Butler got back to playing his physical style of play, but he did have a few issues in coverage. And even though it was garbage time, Butler should have knocked away the Julio Jones touchdown. Trying to make the interception allowed Jones to snatch it away. Luckily, it didn't matter. ... Johnson Bademosi was sound, but not much standout play. Ryan should not have thrown that third-down pass into Bademosi's helmet. He had a crosser wide open underneath. ... Best game by far for the three safeties. They've been taking some abuse this season, so Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon deserve their moment in the sun.
Tom Brady: Upon further review, he was outstanding in this game. He was on point.
David Andrews: If you have a completely clean game as a center when the team is running a lot of inside and outside zone, then you deserve a ton of accolades.
Trey Flowers: The boss on the edge. There's nothing he can't do in terms of pressure and playing the run. Has become a complete player.
Ryan Allen: That 57-yard punt for a touchback early was atrocious and really could have cost the team against a better opponent.
Phillip Dorsett: Didn't play much and incurred a dumb block in the back penalty to boot.
Marcus Cannon: Was off balance at times and tended to get pushed around.